Q&A with Suzette Dutch, Managing Partner at Triathlon Medical Ventures

Suzette Dutch is Managing Partner at Triathlon Medical Ventures, a venture capital firm that provides equity capital to early and expansion stage companies with proprietary biomedical technology platforms and products addressing significant human healthcare needs. Suzette has 30 years of venture investing experience and 10 years of operating experience in pharmaceuticals, surgical devices and diagnostics. This interview has been edited for publication.

Q: What led you to venture capital? 

It was a combination of serendipity and a series of good decisions. I never interviewed for a position as a venture capitalist. I created the position within an organization where I had built credibility in an operating role, and I filled it.

When I finished my MBA in 1976, the VC industry was small and highly concentrated in Silicon Valley. It was also, I believe, 100% male. After graduating, I worked first at a consumer products company, then a Fortune 100 healthcare company, and a privately-held fastener manufacturing company that had partnered with Johnson & Johnson to develop a surgical stapler.  

After three years planning corporate growth and expansion, I was assigned to evaluate a buyout offer by J&J. My analysis valued the transaction at four times the price offered, and my CEO stood firm on my analysis as the price we’d accept. J&J brought in consultants to present their valuation, and other than the most junior consultant on their team, I was the only woman in the room. Knowing that the CEO valued my input, I felt comfortable challenging the assumptions that led to their valuation. In fact, the CEO trusted my analysis of the value of the combined entity to the extent that he even offered to buy the J&J division we were partnered with at that valuation. The next day, the J&J chairman flew to Cincinnati to sign the deal at the value I had suggested. 

As a private company that did not have organic growth opportunities to deploy the proceeds of the sale, the executives discussed proposals for how to use the money. I proposed setting up a strategic VC arm to invest side by side with financially motivated VC’s, and so that’s how I became a VC.

Q: You mentioned that at the beginning of your career, venture capital was predominantly male. What’s the state of gender parity in the VC field today? 

Not great, but improving. The percentage of female decision makers in the venture industry has increased from 9% at the end of 2017, to 13% as of as of January 2020. At the end of 2018, 85% of firms did not have a single female partner. By the end of 2019, that number was 65%. These numbers are also significant because women are twice as likely as their male counterparts to invest in female founders. VC decision-makers invested just 2.8% of U.S. venture capital in female-founded startups in 2019. There are now investors and programs that channel capital to women-led funds and to funds with a focus on women-led companies, but the mainstream VC world has not changed much.

Q: What kinds of gender-based challenges have you faced in your career? How did you handle them?

In 2003, I formed a partnership with two of my male colleagues to raise a fund. We had been working together for many years and had complementary skills that we each recognized and valued. Challenges arose when we were presenting to investors who presumed that my partner, John Rice, was in charge. Ironically, John holds a PhD in Microbiology and Virology and was the only non-MBA partner. At meetings he was frequently asked questions relating to the areas I was responsible for, and he politely redirected them to me. In time we trained our investors to recognize who had the appropriate expertise and experience for which subjects.  

This was harder to do with co-investors. In one instance, an opportunity came our way through a relationship of my partner’s, and we did our usual diligence as a team, with each partner responsible for their area of expertise. The product was a new class of drug for migraines that would not have the black box warnings required of the dominant class of marketed therapeutics. My partner had sourced and invested in the relevant technology when we were at our corporate fund, and we profitably exited that deal when the product was licensed by Eli Lilly. This new company was being formed as a spinout of Eli Lilly to complete the clinical development of the technology we had funded many years prior. 

As we always did when investing in a deal, we required a seat on the board of directors and appointed the partner with the skill set most needed during that stage of the company. I had previously handled late-stage development and the market launch of a similar product and had the expertise that my partners thought would be most valuable to the board. When I announced that I would represent the fund, the other investors, who had only known me for the short diligence period, demanded that my partner serve on the board instead. 

We talked it over among the managing partners, and we were divided on whether to say that our investment was contingent on them accepting our choice, or in giving in to their demand. I felt I would not be effective at a table where my opinions were not valued, so ultimately I did not join that board and instead made my contributions through my male partner whose voice would be heard more open-mindedly. Having a successful investment was more important to me than getting credit from people who were entrenched in their biases. 

Conversely, on boards of companies that I sourced through my relationships, I became either the board chair or the head of a board committee. As new investors and independents joined the board, I did not have to behave any differently than my male counterparts to have my points acknowledged.

Q: Have you worked with or for anyone who modelled gender equitable leadership? 

In my corporate VC job, my boss was someone whom I reported to for about 20 years, and from the day he hired me he believed I was equal to any of his male direct reports. He operated a true meritocracy without pre-conceived notions of what a valuable employee looks like. When presented with an idea, he often asked, “What does Suzette think of it?” This wasn’t always well-received among my co-workers. In fact, one co-worker, who never thought a woman could be his equal, ended up sabotaging his own career with his overt, antagonistic behavior towards me.

I feel that all my male counterparts in the firm that I have co-founded treat me as an equal – since I chose which males are part of it. 

Q: There have been some recent articles about how a woman’s appearance can affect her career. Did you ever feel restricted in what you could wear or that you needed to change your appearance so as to fit in?

There were certainly times when I thought my clothing choices could be a factor in accomplishing what I wanted. When fundraising, for example, I needed to dress conservatively, as my prospective investors expected. But once the fund was closed I could wear whatever I wanted, except to annual investor meetings.

Within the VC community, standing out could also be an advantage. I was once contacted by another VC whom I spoke with during cocktail hour at a conference, but we did not have the chance to exchange business cards. It was pre-LinkedIn, and the way he found me when he wanted to discuss an opportunity was by asking other attendees whether they knew the woman in the red dress who brought her child to the cocktail party. Needless to say, I was the only one who fit that description and thus got access to an interesting deal.  

Of course I’ll never know how many opportunities I missed by being non-conformist in dress and behavior. One time I was at a meeting of VC and angel investors when a female angel investor, about 10 years my senior, remarked upon seeing my red nail polish, “that color doesn’t make you look like a VC.” 

On another occasion in my corporate VC days, we had seven decision-makers listening to company presentations, and I was the only woman. A female CEO, who was both attractive and held all the credentials needed to run a company, gave an outstanding presentation that merited our serious consideration. When the meeting ended and it was time to debate whether to move forward, the entire discussion focused on her looks, her short skirt and her long hair. No matter how often I tried to steer the conversation to the substance of her presentation, the attention could not be sustained. Comments like, “If she didn’t want that kind of attention she should not have worn that” infuriated me, but sadly I could not sway the outcome. I debated contacting her to tell her why we were not moving forward, but I actually felt embarrassed working with people who made decisions that way. It took years working with these people to gradually help them see that they were missing great investments because they were more concerned with appearance than with substance. 

Q: It’s not uncommon now to see companies taking proactive steps to increase opportunities for women to ascend to leadership roles, but of course that has not always been true. How have you seen this landscape change throughout your career?

The biggest landscape change I’ve seen is an increase in female-to-female mentorship—both individual and organizational. At my first healthcare job two years out of grad school, I sought mentorship from the CFO, a trailblazing dynamo who successfully navigated the male-dominated company to become the highest-level female executive at the organization. I sought to emulate her and her style, but she proved inaccessible. The message sent to me was, “Mentoring someone just because they are a woman is not something I believe in. The cream rises to the top.” Thankfully that attitude is now rare among the C-level women and VC’s I know. The prevailing feeling is first, that women—and everyone really—should face no more obstacles to success than anyone else. And second, that once women reach positions where we can change that, it is our responsibility to do so. 

My first recollection of this attitude shift was in the late 1980s at the National Venture Capital Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. There were about 600 total attendees and a group of 40 women VCs decided to have a “Women in VC” dinner the evening before the meeting began. A male colleague asked, “What would you women say if we held a ‘Men in VC meeting’?” We answered incredulously, “Look at the National meeting and tell us what that is.” We said we would welcome any male VC who would celebrate the Women in VC’s mission, and we indeed had exactly one male attendee that year.

On a personal level, outside my fund management role I choose to be involved with organizations that provide entrepreneurial mentorship to underserved groups. I am on the Life Science Advisory Council of Springboard Enterprises, for example, which is a twenty-year-old organization that specifically provides mentorship and networking to level the playing field for women entrepreneurs.

Q: What advice would you give a woman interested in a VC career?
There are three main things: First, gain valuable operating experience that will be recognized and valued by CEOs whose board you may find yourself on. Second, build a comprehensive network of contacts that respect your contributions and will share their best deals with you knowing you will add value. And third, choose your firm based on their demonstrated comfort with women contributors. Joining companies and teams that encourage women’s leadership makes a big difference.

Erik Rubinstein is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.